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Cloudy with a chance of boom times: A book review of 'The Cloud Revolution'

A review of Mark Mills' 'The Cloud Revolution: How the Convergence of New Technologies Will Unleash the Next Economic Boom and a Roaring 2020s'

The Cloud Revolution: How the Convergence of New Technologies Will Unleash the Next Economic Boom and a Roaring 2020s by Mark P. Mills, Encounter Books, 2021

We are on the cusp of a world where materials enabling invisibility might one day be as familiar as Levi's. Where people carry computers with AI capabilities inside their bodies. Where machines grow their own components. Where commercial, low-flying drones fill the skies, their numbers dwarfing those of the passenger aircraft overhead.

This is not the preview for a new 'Star Trek' movie but snapshots of what we can begin to expect by the end of this decade. It's the result of a convergence of revolutions in key technology spheres that will transform how we live and work as profoundly as the industrial revolutions of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

In this well-written, researched, and fascinating new book, 'The Cloud Revolution: How the Convergence of New Technologies Will Unleash the Next Economic Boom and a Roaring 2020s,' Mark Mills argues that all this will come about because cloud technology is not just an extension of internet communications but a new and profoundly different infrastructure that rivals that of the most transformational developments in human history.

By leveraging an encyclopedic approach to the history of technology, Mills presents a boldly optimistic vision of a future that ushers in a new golden age for all humanity, one that will be made possible by the world's first, civilization-wide intelligent information infrastructure: the cloud.

Patterns of technological change

Animating Mills' approach is the central thesis of philosopher of science Thomas S. Kuhn, who argues that science doesn't progress incrementally but in profoundly disruptive paradigm shifts.

In his 1962 book, 'The Structure of Scientific Revolutions,' Kuhn argued that scientific progress advances when the existing model or paradigm can no longer explain the contradictions exposed by rigorous experiments. So, for example, astronomy replaces astrology when the back flips needed to justify predictions of how stars affect human beings become too great to justify with any scientific enthusiasm. Kuhn's thesis neatly explains how the scientific consensus makes giant leaps seemingly overnight.

Mills does not say that these societal changes happen overnight, however. At one point, he likens the understanding and adoption of technology innovation to a child learning to walk. Mills traces the arc and impact of new technologies from idea to commercial viability to threshold market acceptance, which he considers 5 percent market penetration. He sees these cycles of innovation happening in basically 20-year increments. So, for example, from the birth of the internet to when Amazon went public in 1997 was 20 years. It then took another 20 years for e-commerce to establish itself as commercially viable.

Please read: Measuring enterprise cloud maturity

Even more fascinating is the recurrence of what Mills calls the "rule of threes" in the history of technology. The rule of threes describes a pattern in innovation that extends beyond the convergence of three enabling technologies that he says are necessary for a major economic and societal shift. It also applies to how disruptive, foundational technology products such as the Apple iPhone come into being.

Mills has a name for the economic and social revolutions that are triggered by technological revolutions: phase changes. Phase changes in the kinds of new infrastructures that serve or support the new enterprises that arise, such as railroads and air travel, are the most critical. At the most macro level are society-level phase changes, the industrial revolutions, the great cycles of technology, and economic growth that lasts about 70 years between economic booms. The key technology these individual revolutions have all made possible is the biggest and most unique infrastructure ever built: the cloud.

Information as infrastructure

Mills says the information infrastructure of the cloud is as different from the internet as the smartphone is from 1960s telephony. The cloud is not a new communications medium; it is infrastructure so pervasive and infiltrating that it is more analogous to a utility like electricity. Simply put, the cloud is information as infrastructure—the world's first, civilization-wide intelligent infrastructure.

Please read: Exascale computing: What it is and what it could be

This cloud will be the backbone for economic growth, like the way the construction of superhighways drove economic growth in the U.S. and Europe in the decades after World War II. But even that analogy doesn't do the cloud justice. Mills notes that since humanity first invented the wheel, we created approximately 7,000 kinds of specific hand tools. But after just one decade, there are more than 3 million different kinds of applications for smartphones—not surprising when one realizes that the cloud now manages more digital traffic every few days than it did in the entirety of 2007, the year the iPhone was introduced.

Information, materials, machines

In the central section of his book, Mills uses the rule of threes to chart the revolutions in three key technology spheres: information, materials, and machines. He argues that the cloud and the digitalization of virtually everything that cloud networks make possible greatly enhance the reach and scope of these revolutions.

Mills sees information acquisition at the intersection of scale, precision, and time.

He notes that the data universe is growing so fast—an estimated 1 million times by 2040—that it almost defies understanding. Digital cameras are already the world's most used information-gathering tool. And though digitalization of hardware-related activities is still in its early stages, sensors have already achieved Mills' 5 percent inflection point of commercial viability.

The internet unleashed e-commerce. The cloud brings the great evolutionary leap with its ability to fuse the physical and digital in the cyber-physical systems that are the backbone of the explosion in IoT and edge architectures. But just as revolutionary is that silicon, the substance at the very heart of the information revolution, is different from other materials. It can be used to improve and even alter how we use other materials, leading to the magic of "computational materials."

Mills sees materials at the intersection of performance, scale, and information. He points out that manufacturers now spend more on silicon than on steel to build a car. This is not a shock, as he notes that the new goal in material sciences is to synthesize materials with novel properties impossible in nature. From aerogels to carbon nanotubes to graphene sheets just one atom thick, the number of new, synthetic materials is exploding. But this is just the threshold of the possible. Bio-compatible, self-healing, and programmable materials are already in the works. Computing machines, says Mills, are now the philosopher's stones of our time.

Please read: Preparing your people for a successful cloud transformation

Machines are the third leg in the triad of phase changes, occurring at the intersection of speed, precision, and information. While the advent of autonomous vehicles has run into some hiccups, Mills is confident that it's just a matter of time before advances in AI and the further buildout of the cloud will enable vehicles to master the art of driving. 3D printing for manufacturing at scale will transform industry and usher in craft manufacturing as a service. Nano-machines, literally molecular-level machines, will revolutionize healthcare and possibly much, much more.

All these three revolutions will receive their biggest acceleration through the continuing expansion of the infrastructure of the cloud and AI in this decade. This decade will be the roaring 2020s.

The optimistic vision

While Mills' arguments are indeed legitimate, his optimism requires something of a leap of faith. He acknowledges that recent research indicates that automation is shifting jobs from middle income to both higher wages and lower income brackets. But that same research suggests most of these jobs are moving to the lower end of the income spectrum, not the higher. He thinks that scenario will change in the years to come, but one may question that assumption, wondering if the future for many will be working alongside "cobots"—collaborative robots—in Amazon warehouses.

Mills also predicts this new technology era will not lead to mass unemployment and greater income inequality, as some critics fear. He cites as evidence that technology and automation have both led to job growth, not reductions. He says that the "servicification" of the industrial economy should produce a net gain in jobs, even in the manufacturing sector, and argues that this is already happening but that the jobs are misclassified as service positions. Yes, he says, SaaS may have hollowed out some back-office jobs, but they are now operational aspects of a greater fabrication ecosystem.

As optimistic as this vision is, one can also fear it will become abused or undone for political or criminal purposes. Mills does caution against such outcomes, but his libertarian impulse and fundamental faith in how the past predicts the future leads him to believe that the cloud, and this future, will overcome any temporary adversity. We can only hope the patterns of innovation hold true, and that this future becomes ours to live long and prosper.

This article/content was written by the individual writer identified and does not necessarily reflect the view of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Company.